There’s a feeling of disintegration in the United States. Partisanship has reached extraordinary levels. Since the early 1990s, the number of Democrats and Republicans who have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party has more than doubled to well above 50 percent. Americans routinely see each other—not Russia, or China—as their country’s gravest enemy. In 2018, a plurality of Democrats said that the world leader who posed “the greatest threat to peace and security” to the U.S. was Donald Trump. In January 2021, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election—or as they apparently saw it, to restore the election after its “theft.” Even in mainstream media, there’s recurring talk of cataclysmic unrest or civil war. Why are U.S. national bonds so frayed, even possibly broken?

There are many popular answers to this question—from the post-industrial decay and fast-changing cultural demographics that provoked disaffected whites and others to support Trump to the emergence of ideological news channels and social-media platforms that have effectively herded Americans into partisan tribes, to toxic political leadership that manipulates people into considering demonstrable facts as “fake news.” There’s another explanation, however, which has gone almost entirely ignored. It was predicted a generation ago—long before Trump’s election or Facebook—by a Soviet diplomat named Georgi Arbatov.

Arbatov was born in Kherson in the Soviet Union in 1923. His father was a Jewish metalworker and Communist true believer, who traveled abroad as a Soviet trade representative. Arbatov had an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing in Berlin and Paris, a world away from the famine and terror of Stalin’s U.S.S.R. In 1938, his father was accused of sabotage and jailed, revealing to Arbatov both the savagery of Stalinism and the cost of bucking its system. “Even by the age of fourteen or fifteen,” Arbatov wrote, “I understood perfectly well that the authorities arrested and destroyed completely innocent people.”

He worked his way up through the Soviet bureaucracy, becoming the country’s top “Amerikanist,” or preeminent expert on the United States. Urbane and fluent in English, Arbatov was the face of the Soviet Union on American television, appearing on shows like NBC’s Today to attack U.S. foreign policy, label Americans as “cowboys,” and belittle Ronald Reagan as a B-movie actor and right-wing extremist. (Reagan shot back: “They weren’t all B-movies.”) Behind the scenes, however, Arbatov was a reformer who nudged Moscow toward détente with the United States and became part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s brain trust, cultivating, as he put it, “oases of open thinking.”

This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in